In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


"...Exploiters who followed the explorers have been busy both at home and abroad rooting up, exterminating or merely pushing to the wall species after species in order to make room for themselves and for 'useful' products.  The variety of nature grows less and less.  The monotony of the chain store begins to dominate more and more completely.  One must go farther and farther to find a window in which anything not found elsewhere is to be seen.  Joseph Wood Krutch

1a. Appeal hearing 4 pm TODAY on Beach Chalet Soccer Fields - be there
1b. Transit Center District plan final EIR appeal. Urgent
2.    Phenology projects - participation is easy, pleasant, and will broaden your horizopns
3.    Photography show celebrating San Francisco's parks and open spaces
4.    Feedback: theism and Lucretius/Lake Merced/British humo(u)r
5.    Thinkwalks
6.    Kezar Gardens says Chronicle columnist gets facts wrong
7.    Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives instructions to painters & poets
8.    Religion again: Will anyone save Timbuktu tombs?
9.    UN comes up with a better way to size up wealth
10.  Nora Ephron and Lonesome George both die in June

Come to the
Board of Supervisors
Appeal Hearing
on the
Beach Chalet Soccer Fields
Environmental Impact Report (EIR)
Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
4:00 pm start of hearing
approx. 4:30 pm start of public testimony for our side.
SF City Hall, Room 250

 Testimony is handled differently at this hearing --
1.    Presentations by our attorney and by the City Departments.
2.    Our supporters testify and ask that the EIR be rejected.  Once this section is completed, you cannot come later and testify.  Therefore, please be at City Hall at 4:30, so that you can get a chance to speak!  The good news is that you will not have to wait a long time while the other side talks.   WE ARE FIRST.
3.    The other side testifies and asks that the EIR be accepted.
4.    Supervisors vote.  We go out and celebrate!  (Let's all use positive thinking here!)

Prepare for one, two, or three minutes . . .
This is your chance to let the Supervisors know how you feel about this project! Help to keep over 7 acres of artificial turf and 150,000 watts of sports lights out of Golden Gate Park!  Let them know that the EIR is inadequate and incomplete and that this project should not be built in Golden Gate Park.
For more information, go to

We will be outside the room - look for the Save Golden Gate Park buttons!

From Chris Darling:
I only get to your blog occasionally these days but I enjoy it as much as ever. 

There is a good writeup about the astroturf soccer fields in GG Park at:


1b.  From Jennifer Clary:

 Please consider attending today's Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall for two critically important CEQA appeals

1.  Beach Chalet Recreation complex - Please support the Ocean Edge appeal of the EIR for the  proposed soccer field reconstruction at the west end of Golden Gate Park that would replace the current natural grass field with artificial turf and 60' stadium lights. Ocean Edge has proposed an alternative that would provide the recreational benefit for the project without the significant coastal impact

2. Transit Center District plan - appeal of Final EIR for the new transbay complex on the grounds that it violates the Shadow ordinance, Prop K.  This is hugely important - the City is encouraging new residents to move downtown, while at the same time reducing the livability of the area by casting significant shadows on sidewalks and parks.

Please come or call your Supervisor!!

And don't forget to sign a petition to place the 8 Washington development and waterfront height increase on the ballot!!


2.  Phenology project

"What one finds…will be what one takes the trouble to look for—the brilliant little flower springing improbably out of the bare, packed sand, the lizard scuttling with incredible speed from cactus clump to spiny bush, the sudden flash of a bright-colored bird.  This dry world, all of which seems so strange to you, is normal to them.  It is their paradise, their universe as-it-ought-to-be…"

"These are things which other nations can never recover.  Should we lose them, we could not recover them either.  The generation now living may very well be that which will make the irrevocable decision whether or not America will continue to be for centuries to come the one great nation which had the foresight to preserve an important part of its heritage.  If we do not preserve it, then we shall have diminished by just that much the unique privilege of being an American."
    Joseph Wood Krutch

"The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."  Eden Phillpotts

Attention, potential environmental activists

JS:  Here is an easy way to become involved in steps to save the natural environment.  It takes minimal training, you learn a lot of fascinating things, your view of the world takes a significant turn, you meet people with similar concerns and interests, and....need I say more?

The Science Life
Changing seasons inspire science
Science News 30 June 2012

phenology |fiˈnäləjē|
noun - the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, esp. in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

The USA National Phenology Network brings together scientists and citizens to collect data on plants and animals.A. Miller-Rushing
Nature lovers have long tracked the timing of certain events — when plants bloom or when fish swim upstream to spawn — to answer practical questions: When are the best times to hunt and fish? When should crops be planted and harvested? These days, such homespun investigators have come to be known as citizen scientists.

Increasingly, researchers are tapping into the wealth of observations being made by citizen scientists nationwide, a data trove impossible for scientists to gather on their own (or even with a small army of graduate students). One of the largest repositories of such data is maintained by the USA National Phenology Network, founded in 2007.

Last month the organization reached a landmark of more than 1 million observations collected on hundreds of species ranging from alfalfa to Yoshino cherry, the tree whose blossoms beautify the Tidal Basin each spring in Washington, D.C. Shifts in the timing of such events are among the keenest and most widespread indicators of climate change. That makes phenology — the study of the life cycles of plants and animals and the effects of year-to-year and season-to-season climate variations — a hot topic (see Page 16).

Most of the observations cataloged by the phenology network have been made since 2009, says Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, Ariz., and executive director of the network. But in some cases scientists won’t have to wait decades for long-term records to pile up, since the organization has become a home for data collected over many years by local and regional groups. Many of these are devoted to monitoring a particular group such as lilacs, shrubs that live across much of the northern United States and whose budding and flowering have been tracked avidly by citizen scientists since 1956.

Not content to merely oversee the data gathered by others, Weltzin regularly monitors the flowering and fruiting of cacti near his Tucson home, as well as seed production of invasive grass species in a nearby wilderness area. “It gets me out of the house and into nature,” he says. — Sid Perkins

Get involved
Anyone who is interested can gather data for use by scientists. Here are a few websites where you can learn more:

Did You Feel It? allows the U.S. Geological Survey to track the effects of earthquakes. Log on to describe the strength and duration of shaking at your location, plus give details such as whether you saw building damage or rattling dishes. The data allow scientists to better predict how future quakes may affect your area. See

Wildlife Health Event Reporter lets users report sightings of sick or dead wildlife. The information helps scientists detect and contain disease outbreaks that may pose a health risk to wildlife, domestic animals or people. See

Citizen Science Central is maintained by researchers at Cornell University to help citizen scientists find and participate in projects or design their own, with guidelines for everything from choosing a topic and forming a team to analyzing data and disseminating results. See

Nature’s Notebook is run by the National Phenology Network and lets people share observations of the timing of flowering, animal migrations and color changes in leaves. See

The California Phenology Project Workshop

Thursday July 19th and Saturday July 21st
There is still time to register for the workshop. Don't miss your chance to volunteer for the California Phenology Project and learn about phenology.
For workshop information: visit
Contact Ruby Kwan at (415) 810-0975.


3.  Below is an updated information flyer on the upcoming show at the Harvey Milk Photo Center celebrating San Francisco's parks and open spaces.  The deadline for submitting entries has been extended to Aug. 8 and the new opening date is Oct. 13.  Membership in the Photo Center is no longer necessary in order to participate.  Images of every sort from San Francisco's natural areas are especially welcome.  (ITEM WOULDN'T POST.)


4.  Feedback

Hans Weber:
Dear Jake:
You had it coming from Mary Lou Van Deventer, a happily faithful soul. Of course, you can't argue against irrationality. Just consider that on average 9 of 10 Americans believe in Heaven, according to Barbara Walters last evening on TV (I did not watch that discussion and am quite happy without Heaven). In  your newsletter, you could avoid ideas that question the value of religion. Which makes me wonder what percentage of your readers need some kind of religion, probably fewer than average.

Stephen Greenblatt in his recent book The Swerve** recounts the discovery, in 1417, of an almost lost poem, De rerum natura (about the nature of things) by the brilliant philosopher-poet Lucretius who lived in the first century BC. This poem extols atomism, Epicurean philosophy (there is no afterlife), and mentions gods who have nothing to do with humans. This poem (in 6 books) was admired by Cicero and other great minds. Copies were made and lost until Poggio Bracciolini, scribe and apostolic secretary, hunting for lost treasures of the classic period (Greek and Roman), discovered a copy in a German monastery (perhaps in Fulda). This copy spread in the Renaissance and influenced many great minds. Giordano Bruno was arrested by the Inquisition and burned at the stake for his heretical ideas (similar to those of Lucretius and Epicurus). By chance, Montaigne's annotated copy was found at an auction (for his own good he had kept quiet). Thomas Jefferson had copies of this poem in Latin, French, and English and considered it a favorite.

With the fall of the Roman Empire and loss of public and private libraries, almost all of the classical literature and philosophy writings (on papyrus) crumbled to dust or was destroyed; only a tiny fraction of those writings were preserved in copies done by monks.
Thanks for your wonderful newsletter!
**  New York Times

Excerpts from this review:  “On the Nature of Things” was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.” Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.

An admirer of Epicurus, Lucretius had the nerve to link pleasure with virtue. By pleasure he did not mean hedonism, exactly; he meant living a full life that included friendship and philanthropy and fundamental happiness.

He also argued — the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon” — that all matter, including human beings, is made up of atoms that are in eternal and swerving motion.

Yeats called one passage in “On the Nature of Things” “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written,” which is no mean praise. Montaigne’s essays contain more than 100 quotations from Lucretius’ poem.

Lucretius speaks across the millenniums because he offers “the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing,” Mr. Greenblatt writes. Human beings, as transitory as everything else, should jettison their fears and “embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.”

Kristen van Dam:
Hi Jake.
Re: 2nd Lake Merced Community Meeting.

God forbid children should have a suitable place to practice their sport. (by the way: no one actually refers to them as "crew racers"). If most of the people who show up at a hearing are children who desire a better sports facility, then maybe it's time to listen to the kids. If the writer clamoring for a "nature center" wants it so badly, they should volunteer to be a naturalist interpreter for the visiting kids. But my bet is they wouldn't, because they don't want the kids there at all.
Crew gets a lot of kids into college, and it doesn't require artificial turf or glaring night lights. If the community is not asking for a nature center, it's a case of a minority dominating a debate. From the email, it sounds like the writer is asking for the same exact thing the rowers were asking for, with the sole exception of a "small nature center" and "secure space" (gasp). Is a "small nature center" so critical to the writer? Probably not; it's just the only thing that the writer can use against the kids. Excluding people from nature in urban areas is futile. For many, it's the last vestige of nature we have. Stop putting up fences and nitpicking. With extremely rare exception, there is no reason to ban people from urban natural areas. It does not help wildlife, and only hurts those who could learn from exposure to nature. Finally: if your most passionate stance is that you "sort of" support whatever odd idea of "mixed use" you're thinking of, it sounds like the conversation is not all that meaningful to you.
Eco-NIMBYism is still NIMBYism.

Disclosure: I rowed on Lake Merced, though my home water was the Oakland Estuary. I am not a parent. I am an urban environmentalist.  Thank you.
I am distant from this issue, as I don't know what all is at stake.  However, I feel motivated to defend Dan Murphy from some of your insinuations.  I think you're too harsh on him, and what motivates him.  I know him personally.  Whether he needs a rebuke or not I don't know.  But he is a good guy as people go; I wish more people were as community-minded as he.
On Jul 9, 2012, at 9:21 AM, kristen van dam wrote:
Hi again.
I do not know Mr. Murphy, but I have had a lot of experience with urban naturalists whose tendency is to "museumify" their local natural areas (a term coined by Paul Gobster in a paper about urban conservation). This usually means banning other uses in the name of conserving a resource that is neither pristine nor, often, even very functional. I just don't think anyone benefits from this approach. The urban conservation movement certainly does not.

My letter was meant to point out the relatively light footprint crew puts on a natural area, as opposed to the proposed Ocean Beach soccer complex, for example.

Thank you as always for your newsletter.
Kristen:  I have been working in restoration of our natural areas for three decades and I have yet to meet one person who wants to "museumify" areas.  Whatever attitude people start out with gets changed by the experience--and the experience of trying to save species and communities is harsh and demanding.  Frivolous attitudes don't survive long under the experience.  We are forced to become practical to work with a given situation.

I know Paul G, as I took him around town visiting areas, and worked with him over periods of time.  I don't necessarily fault him, but he is an academic, which means that he lacks the hands-on perspective.  When I hear a term such as "museumify" I think 'here's another strawman someone is setting up just so he can knock it down'. 

That is inaccurate, puts people in a box, and doesn't portray the true situation or facilitate communication.  The world is in dire need of communication, but ironically, communication declines as the technology of communication improves--presently by leaps and bounds.  A downside of the internet--and a big one--is that it reinforces a natural human tendency to listen only to those who thinks like oneself.

To get back to Dan Murphy, he is a practical person who has long experience with, among other things, Lake Merced.  While I am not in a position to judge about this particular issue, I put a measure of confidence in his judgment.

(Kristen responded to this, but I consider that the backing-and-forthing was running into the ground and discontinued the discussion.  Printed words can get you only so far; then one must look for alternate means of communication.  JS)

Alice Polesky (re British Humo(u)r):
Really enjoyed your John Cleese quote. It seems to expand each passing Fourth of July, and only gets funnier.

I wanted to pass along what I consider a tasty morsel of English wit that actually occurred; fromWikipeidia, between British pols from the 1940s/1950s.

"After the 1945 general election, (Prime Minister) Attlee had it in mind to appoint Bevin as Chancellor  and Hugh Dalton as Foreign Secretary, but ultimately changed his mind and swapped them round. Some claim that he was persuaded by King George VI to do so; but others note that whoever was Chancellor would have to work with Herbert Morrison, with whom Bevin did not get on. Indeed, it was once noted that Bevin, on overhearing a (supposed) private conversation in which somebody commented "the trouble with Herbert [Morrison] is that he is his own worst enemy", immediately responded with a booming "Not while I'm alive he ain't!" (Some sources say this was about Nye Bevan, whom he also disliked)."


5.  Thinkwalks

Columnist Leah Garchik just signed up for Thinkwalks emails. You (997 of you) signed up first, so you have some responsibility. Are you leading her into trouble?!

Once or twice a month, I drag you all into this virtual hokey-pokey trying to explain What It's All About. I whisper and blurt these shockingly text-only emails. If you got six, and never read this far before, please look deep into your boredom, scroll down and…


I don't want this email list to hit 1000, then go through my whole big celebration only to learn some of you aren't into it, aren't taking full responsibility for where you're leading Leah.

On the other hand, if you're staying on, make the milestone a real accomplishment, like Rebecca Solnit did. She led Leah Garchik to last week's Water Walking tour of Divisadero. (I scheduled another one for July 24th.) Bring your friends on a Thinkwalk!

Or at least to to subscribe so we can top 1000 with certainty and glee! Another good joke would be if you were to go to or and click Like. Then you can put your left foot in a stream of cool links and Deep SF Facts, and shake it all about.

True Thinkwalkers…
…think basic knowledge of place is important (and don't call it trivia)
…love the curiosity you feel tickling your insides
…know the latest dance craze—Do the Nerd!—and you're ready to boogie with your pals or workmates

Deep SF Fact(s):
The hills in SF, officially called the San Miguel Hills, are the northernmost peaks of a range you know as the Santa Cruz Mountains. The northern bump of Twin Peaks is Eureka Peak and the southern bump is Noe Peak. The peak now called Mount Sutro was known as Blue Mountain at one time. The low valley (Colma) just SW of San Bruno Mountain (southern edge of the city) is where all the rivers from most of the state used to flow to the ocean before the Golden Gate became the deep channel that famously drains the rivers to the sea, today.

Remember to check out Leah Garchik's column in the SF Chronicle tomorrow (Tuesday). I hear it's gonna mention Thinkwalks. buy the printed paper.

And then RSVP for the Divisadero Water Walk evening tour for July 24th 7:30 pm.
Or any of the walks or rides posted at

I mean really! How long can you GO without attending a Thinkwalk?!

San Francisco: Y'put your WHOLE SELF in and you shake it all about!

Joel Pomerantz

Chronicle Columnist gets facts wrong
by Kezar Gardens

CW Nevius came out with a new article antagonizing  the efforts of the Kezar Gardens Ecology Center on Thursday.  Perhaps, if one were to read only the first and last lines of the piece, it could be considered accurate, but everything in between is highly questionable in terms of its precision.  We were lucky to get a tape recording of the interview between Nevius and Ed Dunn, recycling center director.
Tuesday morning, Chronicle photographer, Lea Suzuki, spent hours in the yard photographing recyclers and gardeners for the piece Nevius was writing this week.  She encouraged Nevius to come by as well to see the changes and talk to the energetic chief of staff, Ed Dunn.  And, to his credit, Nevius came by Tuesday afternoon and talked recycling center politics with Ed.  He let us tape him and did not hold back on his vehement opposition to the center, however, he seemed to be quite misinformed and uninterested in setting the record straight.
So, we waited to see what he would come up with.  What we got was an emotional article filled with inaccuracies and completely ignoring or failing to research many of the issues presented to him that day.  In response, we have put together a short video detailing the difference between his report and what actually transpired.  The major points we dispute in the video are:

1. The Native Plant garden was a "last ditch effort" to prevent an eviction
Greg Gaar began gardens at the site about a dozen years ago.  He has planted an acre of grounds in native plants surrounding the center and continues to develop and contribute to effective restoration projects all over the city including the Green Hairstreek Butterfly project on Golden Gate Heights.

2. The salaries are too high and no one wanted to show him the books.
Simple math demonstrated in the video refutes that along with an offer to look at the accounting that Nevius does not choose partake in.  The average salary with benefits for a staff member at HANC is approximately 36K and includes health care.

3.  Reference to the Golden Gate Master Plan as proof of non-conforming use.
Nevius was informed about the County General Plan that does allow for a public service that is hard to locate and cannot be located elsewhere to exist on parkland- he made no reference to this in his article.  Also, at this point, no other site on the west side of SF has been identified for HANC to relocate to.

4. Nobody wants us.  City Hall hates HANC.
In Feb 2011, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in favor of HANC recycling center, they demanded  that the City work in GOOD FAITH with the center on this issue.  There are also over 100 community gardeners as well as local recyclers that patronize the space everyday. Check out our other blogs detailing the visits of D5 Supe Christina Olague and Homeless Advocate Bevan Dufty, each having an extremely positive reaction to the site.

Take a few moments to see for yourself.  And take a gander at the Nevius article through the link below as well as HANC's 990, it's all public.  It's certainly not news that we have opponents in this struggle but we must be vigilant about reporting the facts to the best of our knowledge and holding this reporter to the same virtue.
Nevius Article

Ed Dunn


Instructions to Painters & Poets

I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous
as if they were all guarding trade secrets
Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work
a site-specific art work
an art project of the god of light
the whole earth and all that's in it
to be painted with light

And the first thing you have to do
is paint out postmodern painting
And the next thing is to paint yourself
in your true colors
in primary colors
as you see them
(without whitewash)
paint yourself as you see yourself
without make-up
without masks
Then paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light
And be sure you get the perspective right
and don't fake it
because one false line leads to another


And don't forget to paint
all those who lived their lives
as bearers of light
Paint their eyes
and the eyes of every animal
and the eyes of beautiful women
known best for the perfection of their breasts
and the eyes of men and women
known only for the light of their minds
Paint the light of their eyes
the light of sunlit laughter
the song of eyes
the song of birds in flight

And remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside

~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti ~

(How to Paint Sunlight)

(The picture is a scene that is similar to what used to exist in California, but now rare.  It is a canyon near Bakersfield and Arvin.  JS) .

Lost Art
Will anyone save Timbuktu tombs?

In Timbuktu in Mali, great art is being attacked as if it were an enemy.  The aim is total destruction.  The same brand of militant Islamism that deprived the world of the Buddhas of Bamiyan is now being turned on medieval tombs that are among the wonders of Africa.

The architecture of Timbuktu is extraordinary.  In the middle ages, this was a land of gold-rich rulers and marketplaces that connected Africa with the Mediterranean world across the Sahara.  Unlike the colossal statues of the Buddha destroyed by the Taliban, the monuments of Timbuktu are themselves Islamic.  But the tombs revere Sufi saints, and the Islamist rebels who have taken over Timbuktu regard such saint-cults as idolatrous.

The world needs to act.  It is an attack on Africa itself.  It is horrible to see one of the most fantastic art capitals on earth assaulted in this way.  Africa's heritage is being systematically trashed.  How will the world respond?

Jonathan Jones, Guardian Weekly

Free exchange

The real wealth of nations

A new report comes up with a better way to size up wealth

Jun 30th 2012 | from The Economist  (excerpt)

“WEALTH is not without its advantages,” John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, “and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.” Despite the obvious advantages of wealth, nations do a poor job of keeping count of their own. They may boast about their abundant natural resources, their skilled workforce and their world-class infrastructure. But there is no widely recognised, monetary measure that sums up this stock of natural, human and physical assets.

Economists usually settle instead for GDP. But that is a measure of income, not wealth. It values a flow of goods and services, not a stock of assets. Gauging an economy by its GDP is like judging a company by its quarterly profits, without ever peeking at its balance-sheet. Happily, the United Nations this month published balance-sheets for 20 nations in a report overseen by Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University. They included three kinds of asset: “manufactured”, or physical, capital (machinery, buildings, infrastructure and so on); human capital (the population’s education and skills); and natural capital (including land, forests, fossil fuels and minerals).

By this gauge, America’s wealth amounted to almost $118 trillion in 2008, over ten times its GDP that year. (These amounts are calculated at the prices prevailing in 2000.) Its wealth per person was, however, lower than Japan’s, which tops the league on this measure. Judged by GDP, Japan’s economy is now smaller than China’s. But according to the UN, Japan was almost 2.8 times wealthier than China in 2008.

...The idea that natural assets are substitutable makes some environmentalists (including some contributors to the report) nervous. Many of the services the environment provides, like clean water and air, are irreplaceable necessities, they point out. In theory, however, the undoubted value of these natural treasures should be reflected in their price, which should rise steeply as they become more scarce. A good asset manager will then husband them carefully, knowing that it will take an ever-increasing amount of human or physical capital to make up for further losses of the natural kind.

In practice, however, natural assets are often hard to price well or at all. As a consequence, the UN report has to steer clear of assets like clean air that cannot be directly owned, bought or sold. It confines itself to resources like gas, nickel and timber, for which market prices exist. But even these market prices may not reflect a commodity’s true social value. Beekeeping is one example beloved by economic theorists. Bees create honey, which can be sold on the market. But they also pollinate nearby apple trees, a useful service that is not purchased or priced.

Bee counters

No one is more aware of these limitations than the report’s authors. Their estimates are illustrative, not definitive, says Sir Partha. The calculations are inevitably crude, just as the first guesstimates of GDP were crude over 70 years ago. He hopes more economists will do the hard but valuable work of pricing the seemingly priceless. The profession does not really reward this work, says Sir Partha. But some economists do it anyway. Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont and his co-authors have even calculated the value of pollination, showing that one Costa Rican coffee-grower benefited by $62,000 a year from the feral honey bees in two nearby patches of forest.

Now that economists have shown that such wealth can be measured, they must decide what it should be called. In his earlier academic work Sir Partha calls it “comprehensive wealth”. The UN report dubs it “inclusive wealth”. If the notion catches on, neither name may be needed. “Pretty soon,” says Sir Partha, “we ought to drop both adjectives and just call it wealth’.”


10.  Nora Ephron and Lonesome George

When Nora met George

Nora Ephron, observer of sexual behaviour, died on June 26th, aged 71. Lonesome George, habitual abstainer, died on June 24th, aged perhaps 100

Jul 7th 2012 | from The Economist

THE first story Nora Ephron had to write for the New York Post—the one that made the guys on the city desk fall around laughing, got her the job, and launched her on a career of witty, wise writing on surviving modern life—was about a pair of hooded seals at the Coney Island aquarium. They were not only not mating, as they were supposed to, but also refusing to have anything to do with each other.

Lonesome George could relate to that. Though he was probably the last surviving example of the giant Galápagos tortoise Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, he too refused to perform. Scientists, tourists, journalists, conservationists and the government of Ecuador all waited for two decades for him to mate successfully or, indeed, get it on at all. He wasn’t playing. In 1993 two females of a slightly different subspecies were put into his corral. He ignored them. When at last he decided to do his duty, in 2008 and occasionally later, the eggs failed to hatch. Clearly, he was a slow burner. Possibly he was gay. He refused to be turned on even when a female Swiss zoology graduate, smeared with tortoise hormones, gave him manual stimulation for four months.

At which stage Ms Ephron might have asked, couldn’t he at least have faked it? Women did that all the time. The most famous scene of her highly successful screenwriting career—which included “Sleepless in Seattle”, “You’ve Got Mail” and “Julie and Julia”—was the one in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) in which Sally faked an orgasm over lunch at a deli on New York’s Lower East Side. After she had reared, moaned, gasped and shouted “Yes!” for what seemed like five minutes, the elderly lady at a nearby table told the waiter: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

George couldn’t. But then he didn’t have the advantage of living, like Ms Ephron, in Manhattan, where something was almost bound to happen to you if you simply stepped outside, and if it didn’t happen you could pick up the phone and order it. He was living in a volcanic field on Santa Cruz island 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, where you couldn’t find a decent bagel if you tried: in fact, a place a lot like Washington.

Besides, he was no looker. Ms Ephron, though striking and svelte all her life, worried in the niggling way of women that her breasts were too small, her neck too crêpy (“I Feel Bad About My Neck” was the title of one book), her skin dry and her purse just wrong. George, whose neck was three feet of scrag and whose skin would have made several dozen purses, all thick, dry leather, didn’t care two hoots. His one concession to fashion was a shell in taupe. Ms Ephron preferred black; but taupe, especially on a couch, didn’t show the dirt.

Couches arose because they were part of the extra-domestic arrangements of her second husband, Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. (Hence her Washington exile.) He left her when she was pregnant with their second child, falling for a woman whose neck was approximately as long as George’s and whose feet were splayed. Ms Ephron triumphantly got over it by turning the saga into a bestseller, “Heartburn”, in 1983, and then into a screenplay for the film, in which she was played by Meryl Streep. (“If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl Streep to play you. You’ll feel much better.”)

Her problem, she admitted, was falling in the first place for a priapic Jewish prince (Homo princeps judaicus incapax)—the sort who asked, “Where’s the butter?” when he meant, “Get me the butter.” She would hardly have done much better with George, whose neglected and expendable paramours were called No. 106 and No. 107, and whose rear-end shoves of his female companions were not, as scientists first thought, a playful invitation to sex but an order to quit the mud wallow, now, and leave it to him. The wallow was where El Solitario Jorge spent much of his time, smiling inanely and with the odd bit of food trailing from his mouth. All he needed was a copy of Architectural Digest to look like someone she knew.

To get her own back at Mr Bernstein, in a way befitting her love of food and her urge to cook, Ms Ephron in her book threw a key lime pie at him. She also provided the recipe. An erring tortoise would need sterner treatment. For tortoise soup, take one reptile, eviscerate, remove skin and all fat, remove shell. Simmer with lots of vegetables for two hours. Serves eight. This soup is illegal outside South Carolina.

And that was precisely how George had attained his solitary state: fishermen and sailors had eaten his tribe, goats had competed for the sparse vegetation, pigs had devoured the eggs, until he alone remained on Pinta Island, where a Hungarian looking for snails had discovered him in 1971. On his new island, he wasn’t truly alone: what with 180,000 tourists a year, 20,000 other tortoises, a team of scientists watching his every move, and journalists fighting on the bridge beside his pen. He was just the rarest creature in the world.

Equally, Ms Ephron—though she became the model of the defiant single woman—was not alone for long. She surrounded herself with blaring, cornucopian Manhattan, plunged into her work and then, in 1987, discovered the “secret to life” by marrying an Italian. But she was rare because, being very hurt, she got over it by making the world laugh at and with her.

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